Government says vulnerable children face unique challenges

GN drops appeal on child welfare case

By JOHN BIRD

It has taken two-and-a-half years and an election, but the Government of Nunavut now says it will drop an appeal against a child welfare ruling and accept responsibility to care for orphans right through to adulthood.

In a 2006 case, Nunavut's Chief Justice Beverly Browne ruled the territorial government must change its legislation to take proper parental responsibility for orphans between the ages of 16 and 18, who were falling through the cracks.

But instead of accepting Browne's ruling, Leona Aglukkaq, then the health and social services minister, announced within the month that the GN would appeal.

She refused any further comment at the time on the grounds that the matter was before the courts.

But the new government has announced it will drop the appeal and amend its child-care legislation to respond to Browne's concerns.

The new government has an opportunity to review and improve the Child and Family Services Act to meet "the unique challenges to youth in Nunavut," Justice Minister Keith Peterson told Nunatsiaq News.

"Children and youth in Nunavut are important to us; they're a vulnerable group," he said. "We didn't feel we needed a lawsuit hanging over our heads."

The Department of Health and Social Services will take the lead in revising the legislation, which will require community consultation and discussion with interest groups, Peterson said, "so everyone gets an opportunity to participate and have a say – and not just adults, but also children and youth."

"We're in a hurry to start the work as soon as possible," he added. "We are not going to wait until two years into our mandate."

He anticipated the process will be well under way before the end of the calendar year.

Pam Coulter, a spokesperson for HSS, echoed Peterson's remarks in a written statement that said the lawsuit was "not consistent with the new government's priority to help those at risk in our community."

It was not consistent with stated priorities in 2006, either, according to the previous government's own Pinasuaqtavut document, which Browne quoted in her ruling:

  • "We must provide for those who are not able to care for themselves;"
  • "We must provide options and opportunities which build the strengths of individuals, families and communities."

Browne made her 2006 ruling in the case of a boy, then 17, known as J.S.

J.S. became a "ward of the state" at age seven. Over the next decade, he was moved from foster home to foster home, was charged with more than a dozen criminal offences, and served three sentences in the young offender's centre.

In December 2005, at age 16, J.S. was released from custody after serving a four-month sentence for break and enter, with no place to call home and no youth shelter in the territory to go to.

GN legislation allowed him to apply for support services to cover rent, food and clothing, but it was up to to the 16-year-old to take the initiative and look after himself.

Not good enough, Browne said. "It was not appropriate for HSS to wash its hands of this young man when he turned 16."

Browne recognized that J.S. was in many ways "perhaps his own worst enemy," and that his criminal behaviour must have discouraged HSS staff.

"However, being discouraged about the behaviour of a young person does not terminate the parenting responsibility in any family… and does not take away the parenting responsibility of the director [of HSS], who has had the care of the child since he was seven years old."

"The government must identify and ensure that the appropriate offers of food, clothing, housing, education and employment are made to these young people just as parents would do," she added.

"We have many who are homeless, parentless and poor and are not being adequately served by the present legislation."

Noting that children and youth under 22 make up more than 50 per cent of Nunavut's population, Peterson also said the government wants to establish a child advocacy office, a person whom children or their parents or guardians can call with their concerns.

The advocate would hear those concerns, he said, make inquiries, investigate, and bring them before the appropriate bodies.

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